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Ancient Grains

As a group of small farmers work to return typical American grains to local prominence, Chi Scherer draws from much deeper traditions.

Magenta stalks of amaranth sustained ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures while rosy seed heads of quinoa were an Incan staple. Prized for their high levels of essential amino acids, both ancient grains have found favor in recent decades, particularly among whole-foods cooks and allergy sufferers. After growing amaranth and quinoa for 30 years to stock his family's pantry, Scherer is harvesting more at his Williams farm to meet increased demand for local grains.

"Locally grown, sustainably grown plant protein ... is the most harmonious way we can feed ourselves," says Scherer, who lectures on whole-farm systems at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center.

"It's a niche that people haven't really filled that much," says Scherer. "There's gonna be a market ... for this."

Scherer's primary market has long been Ashland Food Co-op, which sells his certified-organic vegetables and fruits. Within the past year, the store started carrying Scherer's Hi Hoe amaranth, dried black beans and heirloom corn, which sold out in early spring.

This year, Scherer says he plans to double amaranth production and sell other varieties of legumes — lentils, black-eyed peas and Anasazi beans — in addition to quinoa and ground corn. Packaged in 1-pound bags, the products are due to hit Co-op shelves in late fall.

"The flavor is so different from what you buy ... it's meant to be flour or polenta," says Co-op culinary educator Mary Shaw of the corn, a multicolored variety known as Mandan Bride.

The corn flour is a light lavender color, the polenta also a bluish hue, says Scherer. He grinds all his grains on the farm, packages them and affixes labels with cooking suggestions. Bags were priced at approximately $3 last year.

Selling occasionally to local community-supported agriculture programs, Scherer says he also is considering making Hi Hoe grains and beans available through the online farmers market, Rogue Valley Local Foods, particularly if customers would purchase in bulk.

Scherer, 54, gave up the local farmers-market scene decades ago in favor of wholesale, which he says is more efficient. Purchasing Bluebird Farm on Caves Camp Road about 20 years ago, Scherer says he chose to farm in the Rogue Valley for its favorable climate and stable water supply.

"It's a really optimum bio-region," he says. "I feel like I've been paid so well in terms of what I've learned."

The 11.5-acre property Scherer owns with his wife, Michele, invites beneficial bird and insect life. Planting cover crops, such as buckwheat, nourishes the soil. Although common weeds are allowed to grow between beds and even among some crops, Bluebird Farm's tidiness amid productivity intimidates some new farmers, says Tracy Harding, Small Farms Program assistant at SOREC.

"It's overwhelming to go to his place ... it's immaculate," says Harding.

Scherer says he's encouraged that more young farmers, especially women, have taken up the cause of sustainable agriculture in the five years he's lectured at the Extension. That enthusiasm also is apparent among consumers, he adds.

"Finally, the whole public has come around."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Chi Scherer's Bluebird Farm in the Williams area produces grains, fruits and vegetables wholesale for local markets. - Bob Pennell